Despite the widespread availability of good quality cheap products (watches, handbags, cars…), there remains a remarkable appetite for extremely expensive versions of them…
So the immediate question is: why would someone spend two hundred times more on a watch? The standard response at this point is to get rather severe, judgmental and censorious; and to assume that the only reason one might buy the expensive item is the desire to show off, to parade one’s affluence and to try to humiliate others. In short, buying it is a piece of aggressive self-assertion. This sort of analysis derives from our society’s folk memory of a stock character in fiction – the mean rich idiot –
This issue needs to be addressed urgently because it’s remarkably stressful to live in a society where luxury seems like a necessary route to a good life. The implicit philosophy of luxury goods is that the ingredients of fulfilment lie considerably outside an ordinary salary; which condemns a huge section of society to feelings of incompleteness. By definition ‘luxury’ is what 95% of the population either cannot, or can only just (with huge effort) afford. So there’s a genuine need to attack the brilliance with which luxury has managed to position itself as both central to life – yet unavailable. Luxury has a menacing, baffling position in relation to our ambitions.
But we can suggest that the impulse to buy luxury goods doesn’t come from greed or the desire to humiliate others. … The love of luxury breeds in societies where it feels very dangerous to be average… It isn’t coincidental that the love of luxury has been particularly in evidence in societies where the average existence is a properly painful place to be.
…certain places are rather inimical to luxury, that Rolex and Louis Vuitton, Prada and Aston Martin have done spectacularly badly in Denmark, a country which boasts the third highest level per capita income in the world and one of the most equal distributions of wealth anywhere.
The Danish case illustrates one large possible solution to the social problem of luxury. The desire for luxury is inversely related to the level of dignity of an average life; as dignity goes up, so the desire for luxury comes down. It was never really about greed, the love of luxury was an individual response to a political failure: the inability of governments to ensure that an average life could be a flourishing life.
…luxury isn’t just a fear of the average, it’s also a symptom of trust in authority, driven to a potentially excessive degree.
But this trust can be usurped by the less deserving characters from ad agencies, who act a little like a malevolent supply teacher who work on a student’s credulity, exploiting his trust in authority, built up over years by a series of benign teachers. Our willingness to do what we’re assured is the right thing gets us into trouble when it’s hijacked by people who don’t really have our best interests at heart.
Our love of luxury goods isn’t freakish or vainglorious. It is attuned to some genuine needs: the need not to be drawn into a degraded average existence and to follow the prestigious voices of authority, speaking to us from billboards and magazines.